"Now you're gonna see me talk to the police about the death penalty and quotas," says Alfonse D'Amato, New York's ultraconservative candidate for the Senate, in an aside to a visitor as he charges to the podium. About 150 New York cops, all of them of Italian descent, cheer in the Queens Columbus Hall. D'Amato delivers up vintage, sock-it-to-your-fears rhetoric, and they love every minute.
"Do you realize if we got the WELFARE MONKEY off our backs how many policemen we could hire and put out on the streets? How we could fight that fight against what's taking place and ravishing our streets and the fact is we need a DEATH PENALTY today in this state if we ever needed one!"
They leap to their feet -- guns at their hips, as much a part of their off-duty garb as slacks and windbreakers. They cheer, clap, whistle. Death brings down the house.
And so does D'Amato's obvious appeal to keep America's police departments white and male. "In Nassau County we have the federal Justice Department seek to impose a way of life which is totally ALIEN. A quota system in our police department. They said, 'We want ya to hire 25 percent women and 20 percent blacks and minorities like an Hispanic. NO college requirement, NO high school requirement, only a high school equivalency.'" D'Amato strings sentences in a staccato barrage as he proudly shouts, "And I said NO! I stopped that." The voice trembles with stagy emotion. "When the day comes when we're hiring people on a quota system we've lost the GREATNESS OF AMERICA."
That roaring response from the cops is not by accident. A few hours before his speech, D'Amato is having a couple of little phone chats with aids. "Jesus Christ, I just told ya. The DEATH PENALTY. Imean what the hell are we talking about?" He bellows excitedly; the short fuse about to explode. a"I mean are you listening to me? Tonight, the death penalty and you talk about my support of it." Now, exasperated, as if explaining to a small and not-too-bright child, "and I can call on their support. Yeah, okay? that's the way we'll handle it."
Alfonse D'Amato, the Nassau County town supervisor who would be senator, is on the move -- belting away as the self-appointed warrior of the "forgotten middle class," hitting crime, inflation and his opponents with unrefined gut-cutting fury. The People's Choices
It is mudslinging time in old New York as a peculiar troika of 1980s politicians slug it out:
D'Amato, 43, son of a proud Italian family, feisty Hempstead product of a powerful Republican machine who came out of nowhere to beat Sen. Jacob Javits in the primary.
Elizabeth Holtzman, 39, lawyer's daughter, liberal Democratic congresswoman from Brooklyn, intellectual with an Ice Maiden image, fighting hard to be the first woman senator from New York State. D'Amato, benefiting from a well-financed media blitz, has cut her 19-point lead of one month ago down to 10 points, but she is still the odds-on favorite.
Jacob Javits, 76, born poor on the Lower East Side, who moved on to become the brilliant, if somewhat arrogant, voice of moderate Republicanism; the Polonius of the Senate for 24 years, now a fading shadow, running third in all the polls.
And here's how it's going. D'Amato films an ad -- titled "Terror in the Streets" -- about crime in Liz Holtzman's Brooklyn district and says that she is, through her liberal voting record, somehow the cause of it all. He hammers away at her vulnerable negative votes on defense appropriations. Goes for the family vote by sneering that she is single and "how would she know about the cost of raising a family?"
Holtzman blasts back that she has integrity, charges that D'Amato doesn't and links him to unsavory Nassau County Republican machined politics.
And Javits, tumbled from his throne by D'Amato, is the Liberal Party candidate, perceived by many as too old and feeble. At times, he seems to be searching for a graceful exit. At one point his strategy was to let Holtzman, of the left, and D'Amato, of the right, go at it with loathing as Javits took the righteous high road: "Ladies and gentlemen, do you want a senator who has a mind big enough to encompass this world or do you want a senator who's going to bicker about the things you've just heard?" he said after one debate. But not so fast. Javits moves quickly onto the not-so-high road: "Miss Holtzman has hang-ups, whether it's about weaponry or about the use of the atom if we have to for power, or about the fact that she takes great pride in sending somebody to jail." (That last jab was in reference to Holtzman's frequent mention of the fact that she cleaned up a corrupt school lunch program).
And lately Javits mixes it up with both of them. Holtzman is "dangerously naive." He hammers away at what was Holtzman's major counterpunch to D'Amato -- grand jury investigations of allegations that Nassau County employes were forced to kick back part of their salaries to the Nassau Republican Party. Javits recently challenged D'Amato to release his grand jury testimony. D'Amato sneered back that Javits was "too busy being a great internationalist" to help New York. Javits, who at times seems incredulous still that he lost to D'Amato, snapped back, "Do you think that people of this state are so dumb that they voted for me four times despite what you are saying? It's high time they caught up with you, sir." The Packages
As issues fade in all the shouting, just how are New York's voters going to decide? With D'Amato you get, in ads and speeches, not-too-subtly-coded law-and-order message heavy on crime in the streets and welfare "give-aways." He is a heavy proponent of this year's New Right litany: anti-ERA, pro-death penalty, ban-all-abortions, super-arm America. lHe wants to stop crime -- but opposes all gun control, including a ban on Saturday night specials. He rails against "free" foodstamps, as if he had just caught the users in a criminal act.
With Holtzman you get ads and speeches that proclaim her Watergate role as a tough and young member of the judiciary committee, her hunting down Nazi war criminals, her stopping fraud and waste in the school lunch program, her leadership in getting the ERA extension, her integrity. Bob Squier, her top media strategist, relishes the Abscam tape reference to Holtzman by one of her indicted colleagues. You couldn't count on her, said the colleague on tape, "she's too honest to trust."
With Javits you get his stress on Senate experience and leadership on such important committees as foreign relations.
But the biggest fear for New Yorkers who can't factor a D'Amato in their future is that Javits could split enough of the liberal-moderate vote to give the seat to D'Amato. Javits loathes D'Amato for his savage primary ads that hammered away at Javit's age and physical infirmity. Javits characterized them as "cruel and vulgar" attacks on him for "being able to live 76 years." Javits is suffering from a motor-neuron disease, a chronic condition that damages nerves and withers muscles. In D'Amato's ads, a voice emphasizes, "And now at age 76 and in failing health -- he wants six more years" as a poster of Javits is crumpled and dropped to the floor. Holtzman aides are worried that Javits' pride will keep him in the race. As one admitted, grimly, "He can't win this time -- but he could be the spoiler."
As the days dwindle, the obvious impression Javits and aides leave is that if the senator sees D'Amato coming out ahead he could in the final hours swing support to Holtzman. For now, though, the senator says, "I am hoping for the best." Of the right-wing swing in the Republican party this year, Javits says sadly, "my party is undergoing an identity crisis," and adds that in any other year it would be "unthinkable, absolutely ridiculous" that a D'Amato could get so far. For Javits, at least, it is still unthinkable. "No one waging that kind of campaign can ever be acceptable to or get anything done in the Senate. He's completely outclassed for the candidacy of the Senate. He hasn't the stature." Family Affair
D'Amato, a product of Syracuse University, undergraduate and law school, talks a lot about "them" and how "we'll show them." He's the Italian kid with a real vendetta against intellectual arrogance, and he is no dummy. He in fact touches a positive visceral reaction in all kinds of people who did not go to Harvard. His pitch to the "forgotten middle class," as one Javits aide admits, is "very effective."
D'Amato drips contempt in the plush, rococo world of the Italian Columbus Club in New York City. "If Holtzman's are calling up people and saying, 'is Al D'Amato a crook?' They're a bunch of gooks. What we've seen for too long are the Harvards who have the view that they're the only ones who know how to do the job."
D'Amato uses his family in flamboyant counterpoint to the single Holtzman. Mom is in his ads as a worried middle-class woman fighting crime and inflation. At one festival, his children, wife, brother and father put on the D'Amato shouted marching orders, paraded forth. His father holds a patronage job that has been the subject of press inquiries. His brother is an assemblyman. D'Amato says, witheringly, "You know, the press gave me the biggest impetus to go forward. The 'who is this guy from Hempstead who thinks he can be senator' stuff. I'll show em. I'm gonna beat 'em!"
A Village Voice article roasts D'Amato as the "Devil's Disciple -- the most ambitious apprentice of suburban bossism," referring to Nassau County's Joe Margiotta, a machine boss who controls the Republican county. The Voice states that Nassau has become the "shame of the suburbs by refining legal graft into an art." One former aide is quoted as saying she was present when a businessman handed a blank contribution check to D'Amato. D'Amato, said the aide, bragged, "I can write any number on it I want."
D'Amato says he may sue the Village Voice, that everything they printed was "spurious lies." Then he turns on the aide, a longtime friend of the family, and dismisses her as a "woman who is really unstable. It's almost a vendetta. She was discharged early on in the campaign." The voice gets steely quiet."She's gonna have some real troubles now. She makes those allegations, hey, I'm gonna pursue it."
D'Amato wears glasses, has thinning dark hair and a high-pitched voice. He has a tendency to smile fixedly at every camera in sight. He is intense. One minute, he shouts at aides -- "I want to know where the hell my schedule is; you guys can't operate anything!" The next, he's a backslapper, a hugger; instant familiarity. Women sometimes pull back from the big smack, men from the arm around the shoulder. But for others it is "Hey, Al, how ya doin'?" and a thumbs-up. This response is often from laborers. At an Italian street festival you heard it often: Holtzman was "too liberal." D'Amato would "go after them people on welfare." "He's conservative and so am I, you know what I mean?" For me, it's D'Amato and Reagan." But some young blacks booed him. They were for Holtzman. One said, "D'Amato is very ethic -- and that's code. He's done nothing for my people." A Cog in the Wheel?
It is a contest of temperatures. Hot D'Amato and cool Liz. He is strong on the ethnic-boy-makes-it shtick. He worked as a janitor to put himself through college, and he reminds people of it often. "I know what it's like to clean toilets." Holtzman talks of her intellectual Jewish family who fled Russia, in part, because women could not get an education there. D'Amato likes to imply that when anyone questions his Margiotta ties they are just out to get Italians. He points to a Long Island Newsday editorial. It acknowledges that D'Amato is a "product of a Republican organizatiion that has engaged in such serious abuses as coercively requiring county employees to contribute one percent of their salaries to the party treasury. But no official investigation has ever implicated D'Amato in that or any other impropriety, and most of the practices Holtzman blames him for appear to have been corrected."
However, a D'Amato letter uncovered late in the primary more than suggests he had a working knowledge of the 1-percent kickback practice. D'Amato -- after a letter written by him surfaced in the primary -- openly admitted that a "system" of political contributions by public employes existed in Nassau County. The letter to a Margiotta aide states that D'Amato had spoken to Margiotta who "indicated" that a raise for a sanitation department worker would be approved "if he took care of the one percent." D'Amato ends with "accordingly please find check for $75 . . ."
D'Amato tries to make light of it. "Look, I made a contribution on behalf of a poor guy." But wasn't he complying with a kickback scheme that meant rewards and favors in return for the 1 percent? "Nonsense! That was just a guide for anyone who wanted to pay. pIt was nine and a half years ago." But didn't people get favors in return? "Well, let's say this, what amount would be appropriate to give to the party you supported? It was just a guide , he repeats, then adds hastily, "It's not done anymore. So I gave $75 for some guy who couldn't pay." Then D'Amato says contemptuously, "Holtzman wouldn't reach into her pocket to help somebody."
D'Amato has reason to be defensive. One poll shows D'Amato with a 39-percent like but 29-percent dislike rating. Of that 29 percent, 15 percent said they disliked him because they thought he was dishonest.
D'Amato is getting heavy money and backing from Margiotta's powerful organization, one of the few left in the state capable of turning out a solid vote. D'Amato is asked if the Margiotta tie hurts as much as it helps, if he feels there is guilt by association with Margiotta. "I'm not saying that. That's for you to decide. If there's going to be a parallel, take a look at Truman and Pendergast [the notorious Missouri boss and Harry S Truman's early mentor]. Truman should not have been allowed to go forward? Anyone coming from Mayor Daley's Chicago shouldn't be allowed to run? What hypocrisy. Holtzman's hitting me is just a desperate attempt to divert attention from her own inadequacies. She's sinking in the polls." First Person Singular
It is late afternoon at the Harvard Club. Liz Holtzman sips Perrier water, munches peanuts, talks about the campaign. In debates she can be taut and unsmiling as she tries to get in her punches in the short time allowed. In person she is more relaxed. Sometimes she pointedly seems to try to dispel her Ice Maiden image. One day at a subway stop after an elderly woman bussed her on the cheek, Holtzman turned to a reporter and said, "See? My second kiss of the day." Many of her constituents gaze at her more fondly than some of her colleagues, who find her cold, aloof and an intense, bainy ideologue. As one of the few women in Conress, it hasn't always been easy. According to accounts of the Abscam tapes, Democratic colleague Frank Thompson Jr. described Holtzman to a key FBI agent and middleman: "She's about 36, 37 years old, graduated with highest honors from Harvard Law School . . . she's never been laid."
Holtzman brushes aside the problems of being a woman in Congress. "You've got to remember I'd gone through a few years as assistant to the mayor. It's one thing to be a woman, and it's another thing to be a young woman trying to give instructions to men who are older than you are. They don't take calmly to that." Holtzman decided, after seeing the collection around Mayor Lindsay, that if they could get elected, so could she. "They were my inspiration," says Holtzman, with a small smile.
She bristles at those who accuse her of being uncompromising to a fault. "My bills don't become law just because they've had to pass the House," she snaps. "I've had to get the Senate to agree on legislation I've introduced. You have to pick your fights, work very hard on them, and build coalitions." Her view is that she is not in Congress to win the popularity contest but to be respected. "People don't have to love you to work with you and respect you," argues one aide.
Holtzman was always one of the brightest in her class, and her fact-studded sentences reflect a quiet, measured intelligence. She is slim with redish brown hair, freckles, direct hazel eyes and no wasted motions. Holtzman speaks often of herself as a "fighter" and is not one to eschew the first-person singular: "I expect to win this election for the same reason I won the primary. People voted for me because they thought I was honest, hard working and intelligent and had integrity of purpose." She frequently mentions fraud in a Brooklyn summer food program -- "which I uncovered. When we cleaned it up the cost of the program went down from $60 million a summer to $19 million and more kids were being fed and fed better food."
Holtzman is accurate in the assessment of polls, but she omits the negatives -- that she is perceived by some as too liberal and, in a time of hawk talk, anti-defense. In a world of media-oriented politics, she is regarded by some voters as too pushy or cold. The positives of a woman seen as a hard working causist, on balance, outweigh the negatives in polls, however.
Holtzman speaks with quiet passion about one cause she would champion if she became the first woman senator from New York: "Improving the conditions of elderly women -- who are inadequately covered under Social Security. We have to revise our pension laws, deal with problems of discrimination in insurance, extension of credit, programs for displaced homemakers . . ." (Elderly women vastly outnumber elderly men, but when D'Amato hears of Holtzman's concern for women he says fliply, "Well, what about concern for elderly men?" )
Discrimination was a galvanizing force for the Holtzman clan, a family of achievers. "My grandmother wanted to become a doctor and it wasn't permissible for women to become doctors then so she never did." Holtzman smiles, "I think that frustration worked its way through the generations. One of the reasons the family left Russia, after the revolution, was because my mother was not permitted to go to school and my grandfather said he was not staying."
In America, the extended Holtzman family supported one another. Her parents, both Russian, met in New York. Her father is a lawyer, her mother headed the Russian department at Hunter College, her twin brother is a neurosurgeon. Her first political contest was with her brother for president and vice president of their Brooklyn high school student government. They won on the slogan, "Win with the twins." She jokes, "I got very nervous when he went out to speak for me in this campaign and everyone kept asking him, 'Why aren't you running for senator?' There'll be no stopping him now."
Radcliffe, summa cum laude, led to Harvard. It was a time of change for women. Holtzman was one of 15 women in a class of 500 men. Curiously, Holtzman seems to show little introspection about what might have happened to her had she been 10 years older. The struggle would have been tougher, would it not? "Maybe -- but I don't think so."
Intensely private in a non-private profession, Holtzman, who is single, is equally taciturn about her private life. Friends defend her as shy more than aloof, and yet she has a reputation of being tyrannical with her staff. Impatience does seem to be a part of her makeup. Getting into her car she looks contemptuously at an envelope handed to her by her aide. "That's the second time I've been given this -- how many times do I have to read it?"
She plays tennis, reads a lot of Dickens and George Eliot, likes opera, movies, sailing when she has time. But no one exactly sees Holtzman as a barrel of laughs. She pointedly says one of her attributes is being a hard worker "who would spend long hours trying to get important legislation through rather than running around on the cocktail circuit." A sense of dedication was heightened when she worked in the civil rights movement in the South after college. She still speaks of that time, of being hounded by local citizens and police, with a certain anger. "I had not truly realized there was that kind of discrimination in this country until then."
For now, the Senate race is as all-consuming as her race eight years ago when she electrified New York politics, an unknown who beat Emanuel Celler and, as she likes to remind people, "the Brooklyn machine. On the judiciary committee, Holtzman was the first to call for Nixon's impeachment. Back in Hempstead, D'Amato defended Nixon to the end. The Pasta Candidate
The self-made D'Amato now earns $50,000 a year as the highest elected official of Hempstead, which, with a population of 800,000, is by far the largest town in Nassau County. Yet he still smarts at having been rejected when he knocked on doors of Wall Street law firms. "Not even a hearing. With a name like Alfonse D'Amato 20 years ago, are you kidding? If you didn't graduate from Yale at the top of your class they didn't want to see you." Such anger is no doubt sincere, but D'Amato plays his Italian connection for all it's worth in a state where Italians make up 18 to 20 percent of the electorate. When a columnist called him the pasta versus pate' (Javits) candidate, D'Amato shrewdly turned it to his advantage by firing off copies to a computerized list of Italian Republicans.
Instead of walking into prestigious Manhattan law firms, D'Amato, at 23, went the Republican suburban route, as a law clerk in the county attorney's office. He worked hard in the Republican Party and, at 28, was appointed Hempstead's public administrator. He moved up the ladder in various elected offices until he became Hempstead town supervisor in 1971 and presiding supervisor in 1977.
In the beginning his Senate candidacy was a joke, but D'Amato's ultra-conservative espousals got him the endorsement of not only the Republican Party but two more lines on the November ballot -- the Right to Life and Conservative nominations.
Even D'Amato's local detractors agree with D'Amato that he was an effective supervisor -- although he is knocked as an extreme opportunist in "too big of a rush" and a bully. Javits charges that D'Amato will say anything to get elected, and Nassau Democratic chairman Stanley Harwood, after saying D'Amato is a superb candidate, claims that he has no commitment to any philosophy, "just what's popular at the moment." D'Amato kisses Harwood off: "He couldn't get himself elected to anything except Democratic leader because they lose all the time and nobody with any substance wants it."
The staccato sentences are running down, and D'Amato pauses for a thought. "Uh, do you think I'd fit into that club?" D'Amato gives a hollow little laugh, as he refers once again to the Senate, "How do you think I'd fit in with that club?" Head to Head
Probably like a club fighter. Just listen to Holtzman and D'Amato go at it at one New York debate. D'Amato says Holtzman "voted against every single military appropriation. We're not talking about waste . She cut the heart, the guts, the vitality out of our military. Mayor Ed Koch said, 'She just does not believe in the necessary arms to protect this country.'"
Holtzman: "Well, Mayor Koch is endorsing me , Mr. D'Amato, and not you . . ."
D'Amato: "I'm gonna tell you, you're for a $12-million jobs program to put more people to work on federal, state and county payrolls. We need real jobs. . ."
Holtzman: "We need real jobs in the private sector, but i won't tell people, as perhaps you're prepared to, that they ought to wait on unemployment or welfare rolls until those real jobs are created ."
D'Amato shoots a withering look at Holtzman and says she has "covered up" her defense votes by saying she voted for some budget provisions.
And she, once again, hones in on Nassau County politics. "My record is in the Congressional Record. Your record is still not known. Except that we know that corruption has taken place in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead. Taxpayers' dollars were mismanaged, the victims of this were the taxpayers in Nassau County. At best you were silent; at worst you were part of it."
D'Amato: "Let me talk about a system of massive waste . . . Congresswoman Holtzman, you've been part and parcel of that system. . ."
And so it goes, slashing and gut-cutting down to the wire in the New York Senate race.